The author's grandmother, Frances Katz Hanstein (left), with classmate Carol Simons in downtown Philadelphia in 1943. (Photo courtesy Rachel Beanland)
Some families pass down their grandmother’s molasses cookie recipe. In my family, it’s decorating advice.
My grandmother studied interior design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in the 1940s. During her twenties she worked as a decorator — always a “decorator,” never an “interior designer” — in New York and Philadelphia. She’s now 92 years old, and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren still benefit from her industry experience.
In art school, a decorator named Amy Barth told my grandmother that every room should have at least one ugly thing in it. She took that advice to heart, and to this day, it’s why my grandmother loves a rag rug in the kitchen, why her daughters’ living rooms boast 1970s-era rattan plant stands and why my sisters will never part with their This End Up sofas.
“Not so high,” my grandmother used to warn as my mother held one picture frame or another up against an empty wall. “People hang their pictures too high.” We moved every few years, wherever the U.S. Navy stationed my father, and when the pictures were hung, the new house immediately began to feel more like home.
In New York, my grandmother worked for Ormand Butler Riblet, a well-known decorator who ran a shop on Second Avenue that catered to the trade. In a 1949 newspaper interview, Riblet gave advice on how to find a coffee table that looked at home amongst period furniture. His recommendation? Rummage through the attic and lob off the legs of a table you already own.
When I was growing up, my mother’s friends used to ply my grandmother with praise and iced tea and ask for free decorating advice. She was happy to spend an afternoon pushing their furniture into new configurations, but the thing she loved best was scouring their houses for lamps, occasional tables and odds and ends from other rooms. “I like to make do with what people have,” she says. “Often, it looks nicer than if you went out and bought everything new.”
Unless your home’s woodwork is outstanding, my grandmother will tell you to paint your trim the same neutral color as the wall. She is always a proponent of painting over brickwork — even the pretty stuff, and she’s leading a one-woman charge to bring back wall-to-wall carpeting.
Another secret of hers: books. It helps if you read them, but even if you don’t, they’re a cheap and effective way to warm up a space.
Lamps go a long way, too. My grandmother abhors overhead lighting and florescent bulbs. When the U.S. government announced a plan to regulate the production of incandescent light bulbs, she stockpiled enough bulbs to ensure she’ll die before she ever runs out.
When I look around my own home, I love the pictures — hung low, the books, the lamps. There’s a painted brick fireplace and something ugly in every room. I have Riblet and Barth to thank for the wisdom that’s made its way to me. But mostly I have my grandmother. She hasn’t won me over on wall-to-wall carpeting, but I’m giving it time.